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Originally published in the Winter 2000 Virginia Tech Research Magazine.

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Coping and caring — not packaging — define ‘family’

By Jean Elliott

A Woman’s Perspective

The phrase “the American family” probably conjures up the image of a Mom and a Dad, a couple of children, and their trusted dog on a picnic in a beautiful rural setting. Nice and neat. A tidy package whose cultural ideal is romanticized in the popular press.

Recent research by professors Katherine Allen, Rosemary Blieszner, and Karen Roberto shows a different picture of the typical American family. In a fascinating study, the researchers interviewed 45 individuals to explore the true structure of their families. The researchers began with a comprehensive database of households and narrowed it to those that included a family member over 55 years old with at least one grandchild age 16 or older. From a list of those who were willing to have a researcher contact them, the final 45 were those willing to participate in a comprehensive and personal interview. These candid exchanges revealed both experiences and feelings about family dynamics. “Alternative” families were not unusual, and a large number reported that they or their children had experienced divorce, non-marital childbearing, or alcoholism.

When it comes to a review of real-life families, “Not everyone is Donna Reed or Ozzie and Harriet,” says Blieszner, a professor in human development. “There has always been a lot of diversity among families.”

The Study

Participants discussed several aspects of their family structure, as well as such personal and family problems as alcoholism, drug addiction, arrests and jail time, mental illness, and child or spouse abuse. In addition, financial difficulties were disclosed, including welfare, bankruptcy, and young people moving back in with their parents.

Across the two generations (e.g., older adults and their adult children), four patterns of family structural diversity were revealed. The conventional pattern was defined in idealized terms as a long-term heterosexual marriage to only one spouse, without divorce, in which a man and woman rear their biological children together until the children initiate their own marital and parental careers. In contrast, the researchers defined the “pluralistic” pattern as including divorce, remarriage, single parenthood, unmarried childbearing, gay and lesbian partnership, or long-term cohabitation.

For the 45 participants, the most prevalent pattern was one in which 21 participants had lived their own lives according to the conventional model but at least one of their children showed evidence of pluralism. The second most common pattern was defined as “pluralistic/pluralistic,” where 14 participants reported structural diversity in their own and their children’s lives. Six participants revealed that both they and their adult children followed the conventional model, while four experienced diversity in their own lives but all of their children had experienced the conventional model.

The Observations

The data reveal that older adults have experienced and are continuing to experience extensive structural diversity in their own lives and in their children’s lives. Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of the older adults had lived in the conventional pattern; however, only 22 percent of the participants reported that their own children had experienced the conventional pattern. Surprisingly, one-third of the older adults had experienced such pluralism in their own marital or parental careers, as well.

“The big picture,” according to Blieszner, “is that there are multiple ways to do family. People manage lots of different ways.”

One of the pleasant surprises of the study was the candor of the participants.

“As interviewers and analysts, we were continually struck by our respondents’ willingness to talk so openly about their families,” says Roberto, director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Gerontology. “Our respondents were thoroughly engaged in their own lives and in the lives of their family members, and most did not feel obligated to paint a rosy picture of the life events and processes occurring in their family histories. Instead we found that as we were open to listening, most were open to sharing the complexity and diversity of their family relationships.”

Another somewhat unexpected finding was the sacrifices that older members made to preserve the sense of family. In one case, it meant taking care of a granddaughter who was pregnant for the second time and whose boyfriend didn’t work. In another case, a grandparent cared for a grandchild whose mother was mentally ill. Many went to great lengths to assist their children and grandchildren financially and emotionally.

“Every family has to deal with something that they had not anticipated,” says Allen, also a family gerontologist. “Older adults reported much more distress about the drug and alcohol problems of their descendants than they did about divorce or cohabitation.”

Need for Communication

While conducting the in-depth interviews, Virginia Tech’s research team determined that, given the taboo nature of certain topics, older adults could benefit from more public communication about the prevalence of family diversity and the multiple contexts in which it emerges. Family diversity is not just something that happens “only to me,” or “only to them.” A strong message from this study is that, although diversity is widespread, many families think their experiences are an individual-level phenomenon.

To help remedy this, discussion groups at senior centers or the public library could provide the opportunity to share experiences and coping strategies.

Blieszner points out that “it would be helpful if members of the media, politicians, and other public figures would acknowledge that over the course of American history, people from various cultures have lived in many different and successful forms of family. Slaves coped with separation from their loved ones by incorporating friends into their family circle, a practice that continues today in the custom of looking after the community’s children and treating ‘fictive kin’ as one’s own. As the frontier developed, widowed women took in boarders, providing homes for young adults on the move westward. Vast waves of immigration at the turn of the century found many newly arrived families being ‘sponsored’ by those who came earlier, whether they were related by blood or not. During World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War, many children were reared by a single parent because their other parent was in the military. Thus, the diversity we see in family patterns today has roots in the ability of families to adapt successfully throughout our history.”

She adds that families would be helped “if the media could simply celebrate family diversity, rather than criticize different patterns without examining whether they function well or not.”

In summary, it is important to note that structural diversity has always been evident in family life, and it is increasing. The good news is that there are many successful ways of living a family life. For the individual, it is also helpful to remember that relationships are not stagnant but continually reshaped as we proceed through life.


The research has been published in: “Older Adults and Their Children: Family Patterns of Structural Diversity,” Family Relations, 1999, 48, 151-157; “Older Women, Their Children, and Grandchildren: A Feminist Perspective on Family Relationships,” Journal of Women and Aging, 1999, vol. 11 No. 2/3, 67-84.